Wes Kroninger has always prioritized creative teamwork, he says. The Santa Ana, California-based photographer got his start shooting for salons and beauty schools. Eventually he was traveling the country to photograph hair and makeup competitions as well as a variety of commercial and editorial projects. His clientele and his projects have evolved over the years, but the underlying fundamentals of Kroninger’s approach have remained consistent.
“This work is about constantly pushing creative boundaries,” he says. “Showing the world that you’re constantly innovating is so important in this field, but being able to display that creativity in a collaborative environment is what really makes the difference.”
Kroninger credits much of his work style to a background in music. Just as a band requires each member to do a specific job, Kroninger thinks of image creation as an ensemble effort: “Somebody’s playing the bass, somebody’s playing the guitar, somebody’s playing the drums, somebody’s doing vocals, and when you put it all together, you have a song. There are very few instances where it’s just one person writing everything. The best works are collaborations between multiple creative minds.”
That’s why Kroninger backs away from any opportunity to direct a project. Instead, he wants to encourage all the creative voices to be heard. “My job is to be creative on my side and let the other artists express themselves in their way,” he says. “Then, when these creative processes come together, you can create something really special.”
Kroninger follows a similar process for every job, beginning with thorough planning and ending with a continued conversation through the final image edits.
1. Pre-shoot conversation. Kroninger starts the creative process with a conversation. He aims to determine the feeling clients want portrayed in the images. If he’s doing a beauty shoot for a salon, he asks questions about the overall vibe of the business. Is it more relaxed and spa-like or gritty and rock-and-roll? What part of town is it in? What’s the clientele? What’s the ideal clientele? “Whether you’re working with a salon or another type of client, these types of questions bring up the nuances that are important to know before you step on set,” says Kroninger.
2. On-set cooperation. Effective cooperation on set is infinitely important, says Kroninger. Once you’re on the site of a shoot, there are always variables, always changes, and you have to be versatile. It’s critical to remember that everyone has the same end goal, and it’s much easier to achieve that goal when you work together.
“If, on the other hand, you have a situation where someone comes in and is adamant about doing things their way and everyone else has to flex to their approach, then it adds tension and animosity,” says Kroninger. “Everything can fall apart very easily. Going back to the music analogy, you can’t practice your music and then get on stage and one person decides to solo the entire time. That doesn’t work in music, and the same type of behavior doesn’t work in photography.”
To bring all the key voices into the process, Kroninger uses technology to plug in the stakeholders. He shoots Phase One tethered and uses the Capture Pilot app by Capture One to feed images to everyone’s mobile devices. They can star images during the shoot, so before he leaves he has a good feeling about what the team liked. The method also helps streamline the editing process. For example, if Kroninger shoots 1,000 images and his clients select 250 favorites, then he’s already pared down his editing work substantially.
3. Managing different voices. Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone gets a seat at the table. People need to understand their role, and each team needs to manage its members to make sure everyone is on the same page. “For example, I have to manage my assistants on set,” says Kroninger. “Those assistants need to understand they aren’t there to add their creative voices; they are there to help facilitate. The people who are there to contribute their creative vision need to be granted a voice in the process without being drowned out.”
4. After the shoot. “Keep the conversation going,” urges Kroninger. “The voices get a little more limited, and certain individuals get to make more final decisions.” But this isn’t a time to go into your editing cave and shut out the world. Talk about options, share different approaches, and continue working together through to the delivery of a finished image that everyone loves.
If you’re interested in getting into beauty or commercial photography, Kroninger suggests finding models, stylists, and makeup artists in your area and setting up test sessions to build portfolio pieces. These shoots will give you experience working in a team environment and also help you build a network of pros to work with on future projects.
“Find like-minded creatives who want to work with you,” he says. “And once you find someone you enjoy working with, someone who is passionate about creating great work, build that relationship and keep working with them.”
Kroninger also recommends using these practice and team-building sessions to test out your own styles, your own lighting setups, and your own techniques. This will be how you cultivate a unique look and how you master the methods needed to duplicate certain results on set. “Test, test, test,” says Kroninger. “If someone sees your work and wants to use you, you need to make sure you’re doing things you’ve mastered.”
The whole process builds confidence, contacts, and creativity. When you understand where you fit in the ensemble, you build up a greater sense of value in yourself as a professional.
“It all starts with knowing your worth, knowing your role in the creative process, and having the confidence to interject your creative voice when it’s appropriate,” says Kroninger. “From there, the possibilities get really exciting.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.